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Operation Barbarossa   >   Deception & Surprise

   
 

Deception and Surprise in Operation Barbarossa


The Soviet leader, Josef Stalin, ignored warnings from many sources about an imminent German attack on the Soviet Union. As a result, Soviet frontier armies were poorly prepared when Operation Barbarossa began on June 22nd 1941
Joseph Stalin
German dictator Adolf Hitler's War Directive No. 21, which ordered the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) to begin preparing for Operation Barbarossa, included the following: "It is of decisive importance that our intention to attack should not be known."

That said, it should have been hard (virtually impossible?) for the Soviet intelligence to fail to notice the huge and gradual assembly of massive Axis military forces on their Western border, and in fact, when one looks at the historical record, it is indeed apparent that parts of the Soviet government were informed of German intentions. Nevertheless, when the Germans did attack, they achieved near total surprise against the Soviet frontier forces, most of which had taken few, if any, defensive precautions against a possible German attack.

So what happened?

First of all let us review how the Soviets should have known of the impending German attack, and how they reacted.
  • In August 1940, British intelligence received information about German plans to attack the USSR, just a weak after Hitler had approved the plans. Information about this intelligence was passed to the USSR, however Soviet leader, Stalin, chose to ignore these warnings believing they were a British attempt to draw the Soviet Union into the war.

  • In Spring 1941, the United States and the Soviet Union's own intelligence service gave regular and repeated warnings of Germany's plans to attack, but again Stalin chose to ignore the warnings. He seems to have again believed that the British were spreading false rumors in order to start a war between Germany and the USSR, and also did not wish to provoke Hitler.

  • The Germans did set up deception operations to convince the Soviet Union, that they intended a major attack on Britain instead:

    • Operation Shark (Haifisch) began in April 1941. It was intended to give the impression that the Germans would launch an invasion of England, with the German navy (Kriegsmarine) ferrying troops from Rotterdam, Cherbourg, and other major ports, to invade England at Folkestone, Worthing, and other points on the South coast.

    • Operation Harpoon (Harpune) gave the impression of further preparations for Operation Sealion occuring in France, Denmark, and Norway

  • Soviet spy, Richard Sorge, passed on the exact date of the invasion. It should be noted however that he had passed on several previous invasion dates which had passed peacefully, so perhaps his information was ignored for this reason.

  • German reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union, and even a German defector just before the invasion were also ignored.

  • Stalin appears to have anticipated an eventual war with Germany, stating in a speech on May 5th 1941 to graduates of the military acadamies in Moscow: "War with Germany is inevitable. If comrade Molotov can manage to postpone the war for two or three months that will be our good fortune, but you yourselves must go off and take measures to raise the combat readiness of our forces." However, Stalin also seems to have never reached the point of believing (prior to June 22nd) that war was imminent.

  • Stalin may well have recalled the events of 1914, when mobilization actually precipitated war, and avoided mobilizing for precisely that reason.

  • The Soviet armed forces, and Soviet society in general had been through a major purge in the late 1930s. As a result, few significant actions or initiatives could be taken without Stalin's approval, and since he did not sanction military preparations they simply did not happen. In addition, as the Soviet armed forces were going through major tactical reorganization and changes in doctrine and equipment, this further reduced the ability to respond to a German attack.

  • Even after the German attack began, Stalin seems to have had trouble accepting it as being full-scale assault, initially theorising that German Generals could be acting without Hitler's authorization.

  • Stalin seems to have had undue faith in the Nazi-Soviet pact. There is also the oddity that Stalin, one of the most paranoid figures in history, somehow seems to have believed that Hitler was a man of his word.
In summary, it's really hard to identify why the Soviets were so surprised by the German attack, other than to blame Stalin: there was certainly more than ample warning.


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